A proposed sale of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad was rejected last fall by the commissioners who oversee the riverfront line, though the board appears to have softened its position a few days after being asked by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to take a serious look at the idea.
That leaves uncertainty about the board’s position as it prepares for its first meeting since businessman Thomas Coleman made his offer to buy the city-owned public railroad last week. Commissioners have been quiet in advance of the Thursday afternoon meeting, which is not expected to include a discussion of the sale, and it is unclear whether there will be any major push to take up the offer again and, if so, how that process might move forward.
The Public Belt, unique in that it is owned by the city, was established more than a century ago to gather all the rail lines that feed the Port of New Orleans under a single umbrella. The agency, which also owns the Huey P. Long Bridge, is responsible for roughly 100 miles of track.
After learning of Coleman’s offer, commissioners voted in November to reaffirm a 2011 report that recommended against selling the railroad, according to minutes from that meeting. But that opinion changed to a more receptive tone after Landrieu wrote a letter in December urging the board to “hold open, public hearings, where those who support and oppose selling the Public Belt can make their case.”
Two days after the letter was sent, the board discussed the issue again and determined that more research on the value of the Public Belt and its assets needed to be done before it could move forward, according to the minutes of that meeting.
The 2011 report, conducted by an interim board charged with reforming the Public Belt in the wake of lavish spending by former General Manager Jim Bridger, argued that privatizing the line probably would result in its new owner focusing on increasing through traffic — rail traffic moving through New Orleans from other cities — in a way that could conflict with the agency’s primary mission of ensuring that all rail systems that feed into the city have efficient access to the port.
The Public Belt is financially self-sufficient and does not receive from or give back to the city any money. Privatizing the line could be seen as a way to help the cash-strapped city, an argument made by Coleman in his pitch to buy the railroad. Coleman, who previously owned the tank farm and storage company International-Matex Tank Terminals, also argued that private ownership could provide the money needed to upgrade the rail line.
Coleman is the father of Dathel Georges, who owns The New Orleans Advocate along with her husband John.
But the 2011 report argued that more economic activity comes from a railroad solely focused on its main goals.
“The core mission of the NOPB and the generation of dollars into the local economy is best served when the port and those customers directly connected to the NOPB are best served,” according to the one-page report. It also said a private owner would be less likely to act on complaints from residents about the way the tracks are used.
The conclusions of the 2011 report could carry some weight, particularly given that the recommendation was adopted unanimously and three of the commissioners at the time — David Schulingkamp, Lynes “Poco” Sloss and Kyle Wedberg — still sit on the nine-member board.
Questions to the commissioners were referred to Schulingkamp, the president pro-tem of the board. While Landrieu serves as the board president, it is typically the president pro-tem who presides at its meetings.
Schulingkamp has not responded to multiple requests for comment over the past week.
A sale would have to be recommended by the board and approved by the New Orleans City Council before it could go through. While a public bid process is expected to accompany any decision to sell the railroad, the details of that process are unclear.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, a representative of Coleman said he is looking to the city for the next steps in the process. “Mr. Coleman awaits word from the city about the next steps they would like to take,” said his representative, Marc Ehrhardt. “He remains interested in the Public Belt and how this opportunity can benefit the city as a whole.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.